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Date: Oct. 22, 1998
Contacts: Molly Galvin, Media Relations Officer
Kristen Nye, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; e-mail <>


Publication Announcement

Fishing Should Be Reduced Substantially
To Protect Marine Ecosystems

Scientists and environmentalists have long been concerned about dwindling commercial fish populations. About 30 percent of fish stocks worldwide have been depleted below the point where they will be able to continue producing large yields. Data on 191 commercial stocks in the United States indicate that more than 80 percent are fully exploited or overfished. The damage to fish stocks and the fishing industry is considerable; but overfishing and other destructive fishing practices also are harming marine ecosystems -- such as coral reefs in the Caribbean -- and changing the numbers and distributions of many species of fish and other animals in the Bering Sea, in the Georges Bank area off the shores of New England and Nova Scotia, and other sites.

To restore fish populations and protect ecosystems, fishery managers should develop policies aimed toward substantially reducing fishing, says Sustaining Marine Fisheries, a new report by a committee of the National Research Council. Management plans should include not only commercial fishing but also recreational and subsistence fishing. More coastal and ocean areas should be designated as protected, where fishing would not be permitted. In addition, managers should consider taking action such as assigning exclusive fishing rights to individuals or communities, to discourage overfishing.

Marine protected areas are most effective when they are established where vulnerable species usually live, breed, or feed, the committee said. Creating these areas has quickly restored populations of fish, snails, and crabs, reduced pollution, and provided habitats for other marine organisms in some regions, including the Florida Keys, the Philippine Islands, and the coast of Japan. Less than a quarter of 1 percent of coastal sea areas are designated as marine protected areas. To ensure the greatest benefit to depleted fish stocks, many more protected areas should be set aside that are or once were active, productive fishing areas, the committee said. Moreover, fishermen should be involved in planning and designating protected areas.

To discourage overfishing, fishery managers and policy-makers should examine options for assigning exclusive fishing rights to individuals or communities, the committee said. For example, rather than allowing open fishing or permitting fishermen to catch all they can until an overall limit is reached, each could be assigned a quota. Fishing rights also could be awarded to groups, such as municipalities or groups of fishermen or fish processors who work in the same fishery. Fishery managers should consider equity issues such as how to assign fishing rights and divide shares fairly among diverse interests. Assigning individual or group fishing rights would reduce competition for the biggest catch and encourage more economical investments in fishing equipment and technology. Those who are competing for the largest share of fish often buy more boats or sophisticated gear, which could lead to overfishing to recover costs.

Penalties for overfishing should be more strictly enforced, and "bycatch" -- fish landed unintentionally along with the targeted species -- should be considered part of the overall fish take, the committee said. Approximately 27 million tons of fish and marine organisms landed as bycatch were discarded each year in the early 1990s. In addition to bycatch quotas established for entire fleets or fisheries, managers should consider setting individual quotas for unintentional catches if possible.

Fishery management policies should be conservative and precautionary to account for unknown variables in estimating the abundance of fish populations or ecosystem conditions, the committee said. For example, instead of allowing fish species to be fully exploited according to population projections, setting lower catch levels could offset any unforeseen population changes. Environmental factors that will affect fish stock recovery, such as pollution or changes in water temperature brought about by El Niño weather patterns, should be examined when setting fishing limits. Biological factors also should be considered. For example, species with long life spans, or those whose feeding or reproductive habitats have been altered or degraded, will recover from overfishing more slowly than short-lived species.

The study was funded by the National Research Council, the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, non-profit institution that provides independent advice on science and technology issues under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.

Read the full text of Sustaining Marine Fisheriesfor free on the Web, as well as more than 1,800 other publications from the National Academies. Printed copies are available for purchase from the National Academy Press Web siteor at the mailing address in the letterhead; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information at the letterhead address (contacts listed above).

Commission on Geosciences, Environment, and Resources
Ocean Studies Board

Committee on Ecosystem Management for Sustainable Marine Fisheries